Sub-Saharan Africa currently hosts 6.3 million refugees, a number which has grown from 2.2 million in a decade, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Massive refugee and host populations, mostly located in dry landscapes with erratic rainfall and poor soils, accelerate land degradation, creating an imbalanced supply and demand of ecosystem products and services.
In turn, human activity also creates immense competition and conflict over natural resources such as firewood, woody construction materials, water, fertile land and financial support.
The situation is further complicated because refugees in Africa are disproportionately women and children. The fact that refugee settlements and camps register fewer men can mean that households that formerly divided tasks along gendered lines are missing the family members who would have engaged in those roles before displacement occurred.
Limited access to food among refugee households results in skipped meals, while limited access to cooking fuel forces refugees to use food aid as a currency to purchase firewood and charcoal for cooking.
There is a clear link between cooking fuel and food security, which must be further analyzed and appropriate interventions defined. Energy is typically not accounted for in humanitarian aid budgets. The UNHCR admits that access to cleaner and sustainable energy is a priority for protection as well as a way to mitigate land degradation and deforestation.
In response to these issues, the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) has developed a refugee-hosting engagement landscape program under which the aim is to carry out concentrated, long-term transformative work with diverse partner organizations.
The priority goal of most U.N. agencies and major international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) is to save lives. Growing awareness of the importance of natural resources to the well-being of refugees means urgent efforts are underway to address environmental issues by reversing deforestation and land degradation trends through networks such as the Environment and Human Action Network and the Global Platform of Action (GPA) on Sustainable Energy in Displacement Settings, to which CIFOR-ICRAF scientists contribute.
While the humanitarian sector is highly skilled at delivering life sustaining relief items as well as education, water and sanitation, shelter and other critical services to displaced people, additional contributions from other sectors are needed as numbers of refugees grows in sub-Saharan Africa due to climate and conflict-related crises as indicated in the displacement global trends report by UNHCR.
On a visit to CIFOR-ICRAF in Yaoundé, Olivier Guillaume Beer, the UNHCR representative in Cameroon, declared his support for further sustainable interventions.
“The role of CIFOR-ICRAF in addressing environmental challenges in refugee settings is not only necessary but urgent, towards the UNHCR ambitious action to reduce negative environmental impacts,” he said.
In the past decade, CIFOR-ICRAF has conducted studies and implemented several projects offering training and technical support to build the capacity of refugees, host communities and partner organizations (humanitarian, development, government) in sustainable natural resource management and forest and agroforestry options.
Ongoing work in partnership with the International Water Management Institute targets 200,000 people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda through such initiatives as home gardening, agroforestry and sustainable bioenergy from a circular bioeconomy perspective, which in this initiative means creating value by recovering plant nutrients and grey wastewater for growing crops and trees and energy from organic residues, supported by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.
Interventions include raising quality tree seedlings for and by the refugee and host communities, tree growing and management support, training in assisted natural regeneration of trees, and promotion of sustainable production and techniques for efficient processing and utilization of bioenergy.
Other initiatives by CIFOR-ICRAF to create more resilient landscapes and livelihoods in refugee settings include stakeholder engagements. One CIFOR-ICRAF webinar on displacement in Central Africa brought together 66 participants from 25 organizations and another event for Uganda brought together stakeholders working on Energy and Environment under the Working Group for ReHoPE (refugee and host population empowerment strategic framework) and included the participation of the office of the prime minister and the Ministry of Water and Environment. A webinar for the Eastern Africa region is scheduled for the end of the year.
Building and sustaining partnerships and networking is another approach. CIFOR-ICRAF has joined local, national and global platforms on energy, environment and natural resource management, climate change and resilience and offers planning and programming support.
Partnerships developed so far include the U.N. system, INGOs, governments, universities, and the private sector. Through a project supported by the European Union, CIFOR-ICRAF in Uganda is supporting local government, non-governmental and community-based organizations to mainstream gender in energy, environment and climate change mitigation planning, in addition to programming in refugee hosting districts.
Gender integration in research and development is required to ensure inclusion of needs and opportunities for different category of people especially women who happen to be the majority among refugees is key.
Ruth Mendum, a gender scientist supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S.Department of Agriculture has led the development of a draft strategy for gender integration in research and development in refugee settings.
Gender is a social dynamic that varies greatly from place to place and from community to community,” said Mendum, director gender , energy and security and assistant professor at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.
“In the humanitarian context, the urgency of saving lives leaves little time for the careful, respectful conversations that good gender sensitive research and development practice requires,” she added. “Especially when we are talking about cooking food, feeding families, roles and responsibilities within the family, these are sensitive topics that touch people’s lives deeply and must be handled with respect.”
In the course of our work, we have learned lessons. In Cameroon, for example, under CIFOR-ICRAF’s European Union-funded Governing Multifunctional Landscapes project, we learned that technical solutions must be accompanied by policy and governance changes that bring together both refugees and host communities. As a result, we have set up multi-stakeholder forums that bring together refugees, local administrations, traditional authorities and other relevant stakeholders to jointly develop resource and land management plans. When everybody has a say to decide when and how trees will be used, many conflicts can be solved or avoided. Extension of this work will be implemented in Kenya and Uganda starting at the end of this year.
Another lesson is the need for local food systems, especially where food aid is not provided or is insufficient. Food trees are intercropped with vegetables enhancing ecosystems services, including regulating the microclimate by reducing wind, providing shade, and provisioning food, construction materials, and firewood among other goods. Equipping refugees with skills to improve their livelihoods while managing natural resources improves their self-worth and is important for their current situation as well as when they return home.
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